Dr. Z carpal tunnel specialist

Short Stories from Dr. Z’s Think Tank

Dr. Z (M. Zannakis PhD)
Award-winning neurophysiologist specializing in hand pain & nerve injury repair

  • 21+ medical device patents
  • 100+ peer reviewed publications

Carpal tunnel myths & facts

Carpal tunnel myths

I hear patient stories about hand  pain all day long. And  I’m always surprised by how often patients take carpal tunnel myths as gospel. For patients, these myths and facts get mixed up. It becomes very confusing, and often leaves patients befuddled. In their frustration, some simply stop seeking treatment. Unfortunately, that’s the worst thing they can do.

I’ve compiled some of the most common carpal tunnel myths here. The goal is to expose them and explain why they are incorrect – and even potentially harmful.

Myths about the condition

Carpal tunnel syndrome is curable. False: Carpal tunnel syndrome is a disease with no cure. You can treat it very effectively. But like diabetes, once you have it you always have it.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is not a disease. False:  The “syndrome” part of the name has stuck in the medical and popular literature. So it’s more traditional than accurate. The characteristics of carpal tunnel syndrome are more like a disease.

Doctors properly diagnose most cases of carpal tunnel. False:  Over 85% of patients who get a diagnosis of carpal tunnel actually have another condition. This high rate of misdiagnosis might be a leading cause of the high incidence of failed carpal tunnel release surgeries.

Myths about getting carpal tunnel

Overwork causes carpal tunnel syndrome. False: Like diabetes, you’re either prone to getting this disease or you’re not. And like diabetes, overwork and strain can trigger the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome, just like obesity triggers the onset of diabetes. Neither conditions ‘cause’ the disease.

Keyboarding causes carpal tunnel syndrome. False: As with diabetes, you’re either predisposed to getting this disease or you’re not. And like diabetes, overwork and strain can trigger the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome, just like obesity triggers the onset of diabetes.

Most hand pain is caused by carpal tunnel syndrome. False: While carpal tunnel syndrome is common, there are other conditions that cause hand pain. Arthritis is a notable example.

Carpal tunnel mostly occurs only in assembly line workers. False:  While assembly line workers are at higher risk, carpal tunnel syndrome can occur in anybody. However, people who perform repetitive hand tasks are at higher risk.

Since more manual laborers are men, they’re more likely to get carpal tunnel. False: Published data shows men are 3 times less likely than women to develop carpal tunnel syndrome. In fact, when the data are normalized, women are over 20 times more prone to developing this condition. That makes it a women’s condition.

Carpal tunnel myths about symptoms

It’s hard to tell carpal tunnel from other conditions like tendonitis. False: Carpal tunnel syndrome has well-defined characteristics and symptoms. An experienced doctor will not likely misdiagnose it.

The symptoms will just go away. Maybe: Under some conditions, symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome will disappear spontaneously. But this is not very common. Usually the patient has to perform some self-help methods including rest, night bracing, stretching, and massage.

I must change jobs or give up my hobbies. False: While having carpal tunnel is associated with working certain jobs, it’s not a solid correlation. So long as you take proper care of your hands, your job or hobbies don’t have to suffer.

The pain and numbness are just part of growing old. False: Old age by itself does not cause hand or finger pain and numbness. (It’s like incorrectly saying old age causes senility.) These are symptoms of pathology, like carpal tunnel syndrome.

I got carpal tunnel while pregnant, and it will be permanent. False: Most women experience carpal tunnel symptoms during pregnancy. However, in 50% of women it completely disappears immediately after childbirth. IN another 25%, it disappears within 6 months. Only 25% have persistent symptoms.

Writer’s cramp is a symptom of carpal tunnel syndrome. False: Writer’s cramp is a repetitive strain injury. It is a lack of acute muscular coordination accompanied by ache and pressure in the fingers, wrist, or forearm. It is not carpal tunnel syndrome.

Carpal tunnel myths about treatment

Wearing a wrist brace cures carpal tunnel. False: Carpal tunnel syndrome cannot be cured. Wearing a night brace keeps the wrist from moving and allows it to rest. Thus reduces swelling. Therefore, wearing a wrist brace will only alleviate some of the symptoms but will not cure the problem.

Steroid injections will cure carpal tunnel. False: Carpal tunnel syndrome is a disease with no known cure. Carpal tunnel steroid shots will reduce the size of swollen tendons. That in turn eases the crowding inside the carpal tunnel. And that relieves pressure on the median nerve and the subsequent symptoms. But the effect is not permanent. After a few weeks or months, the swelling returns.

I must see a doctor when symptoms appear. False: Most symptoms will disappear on their own if you take simple measures. You can perform various self-help methods to relieve symptom. Besides, if you see a doctor, he or she should recommend self-help methods first. But it’s important to see a doctor if your symptoms worsen or you cannot relieve them on your own.

You can’t self-treat carpal tunnel symptoms. False: The American Academy of Osteopathic Surgeons says there are plenty of proven self-help ways to alleviate symptoms. Most of the time, they work quite well. When used correctly, these methods commonly relieve symptoms permanently.

Exercising can’t relieve carpal tunnel. False: Finger, hand, and wrist stretching exercises among the best ways to treat mild carpal tunnel syndrome. In fact, the most medical experts agree it’s the preferred way to treat initial symptoms.

Good ergonomics can cure carpal tunnel syndrome. False: Carpal tunnel syndrome is a disease with no known cure. You can only relieve its symptoms. Making ergonomic changes can prevent this condition from occurring in the first place. But these measures will not cure it once it appears.

Carpal tunnel myths about surgery

Surgery cures carpal tunnel syndrome. False: Surgery does not cure carpal tunnel syndrome. In fact, nothing can. That’s because it’s a disease that has no cure. It’s like saying insulin cures diabetes. It doesn’t, but only treats the disease.

My surgeon knows best. Maybe: You should always consider your doctor’s advice. But doctors – particularly surgeons – are frequently wrong about diagnosing carpal tunnel syndrome. In fact, surgeons misdiagnose this condition almost half of the time. Always seek a second opinion.

I have carpal tunnel because my doctor says so. Maybe: Doctors frequently misdiagnose carpal tunnel syndrome when the patient merely has tendonitis or arthritis. In fact, medical studies have shown that up to 85% of patients diagnosed with carpal tunnel have another condition.

Surgery will eliminate symptoms. False: Carpal tunnel surgery is effective only about 50% of the time. That’s according to patient satisfaction rates at two years post-surgery. Actually, the low effectiveness rate is due to overall unsatisfactory results, return of symptoms, failure to relieve symptoms, and surgical complications. In addition, hand weakness or the need for additional surgery or extended hand therapy also affect effectiveness rates.

Carpal tunnel surgery is like a dental procedure; fast and simple. False: Carpal tunnel release is major surgery. It has significant risks and dangers. Also, recovery takes months, requiring hand rehabilitation. You will not be able to use your hand for days. Then you can only perform light activities for about 2-4 weeks. Finally, only 23% of patients who have surgery return to their former jobs. The rest must find other employment activity.

Carpal tunnel release surgery is successful most of the time. False: Published success rates vary, mostly because there is a wide range of definitions for “success”. However, statistics show surgery fails to alleviate all symptoms almost 25% of the time.

Carpal tunnel syndrome won’t come back after surgery. False: Recurrence of symptoms is not unusual. Overall, by 2 years after surgery, about 50% patients are unsatisfied with their results.

Summary:

There are many carpal tunnel myths floating around. But none are more misleading than those involving carpal tunnel release surgery.

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